“What justifies / the great despair / is the simple, clear-cut fact / that we really have nowhere else to go.” This line from the poem “Power of Attorney” by Israeli writer and artist David Avidan was first published in 1960. In 1960, there really was nowhere else to go. The Cold War was at its height. Europe had just begun to recover from the destruction inflicted on it by World War II and in the United States, Jews were still not admitted as members of country clubs.
There is no comparison between that and the situation today. Both Europe and the United States (and Australia and Canada) take in educated and capable immigrants. Institutionalized anti-Semitism has not existed for quite some time and belongs to marginal groups. The capitalist market is something that is now taken for granted around the world, and the free movement of goods is now also complemented by the free movement of people.
Avidan wrote “Power of Attorney” as an existentialist plea. Today it is a lullaby for those wanting a bit of shut-eye. By accepted estimates, there are about 700,000 Israelis living in the United States alone, which means that one out of 10 Jews has chosen to leave Israel and live in the United States. Since the establishment of the state, fewer than 150,000 Americans have taken the reverse path. Those are the ratios.
In recent years, we in Israel have celebrated the arrival of several thousand new immigrants from France, but before we encourage others to join us, we should work on customer retention. The simple, clear-cut fact is that there is somewhere to go.
This year I’m living about an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley. A huge number of Israelis live here. High-tech companies long for Israeli workers, who have an excellent reputation. Conversations with Israelis here indicate that conditions in Israel when it comes to security and the economic, political and religious situation are a major consideration in their decision to leave, or after they have left, not to return.
Israelis speak about their feeling that recent governments in the country don’t even notice them, and if they do, they don’t want them. They speak about the fact that the various governments have deliberately undermined the values that are dear to these Israelis: women’s rights, equality for members of the LGBT community and the secular nature of the public space. They feel that Israel has spit them out.
The results of the recent Knesset election provided additional justification to anyone who has decided to leave or not to return, and will apparently push others who have not yet left to take the plunge. Anyone who in the past wanted to join a different nation is discovering that it is indeed possible to do so.
- Are Israel's new immigrants keeping Netanyahu in power?
- Then we take Manhattan: How the 'State of Tel Aviv' was reborn in NYC
- The Israeli who links Silicon Valley up with Silicon Wadi
Of course, it is unnecessary to describe the United States as a paradise, or emigration as just moving from one home to another. The United States has many problems of its own, and emigration is always difficult.
Israelis and Jews have a deep cultural identity, which creates another layer of complexity. But human beings have always emigrated. The United States has been built entirely on immigrants.
People emigrate. In a world where emigration is an available option, the choice to leave one’s country is always there in the background. At a time when libertarian slogans about “freedom from government” are attracting followers, is it really strange that people are thinking about freedom from their countries?
In the present era, countries are fighting to keep talented people. The fear of a “brain drain” is apparent and is taken into account in national budgets. The racist right is becoming stronger in the West, in part in reaction to a long process of net immigration, which properly run countries encourage and are pleased with.
Apparently this situation is not understood by recent Israeli governments, which have been doing everything to drive the best of Israel’s young people away. Government ministers preach hatred of the left – and scorn for the “Ashkenazi elite” is the stuff of which political careers are made. To be a secular leftist means living under a constant barrage of slander. Secular leftists aren’t Jewish enough, aren’t loyal enough. They are cut off from their identity, alienated from their people.
Women are experiencing an erosion in their status, regression in the defense of their rights. Members of the LGBT community are discriminated against and humiliated. Reform and Conservative Jews don’t receive recognition and are routinely slandered.
A government of the people and for the people is a basic principle of the nation-state, but it appears as if in our nation-state, the government is deliberately acting against half of the nation, sometimes against all of it. When Israelis send their children to school and the children are taught what Jewishness is by a religious National Service volunteer, the parents understand that their unwritten contract with the state has been breached. When Israelis experience missiles falling near their homes and hear the prime minister boast that the status quo is being maintained, they understand that their contract with the state has been breached.
When Israelis see how Knesset members arrange immunity from prosecution for themselves and place themselves above the law, the citizens understand that their contract with the state has been breached. When Israelis interested in guaranteeing their children’s future hear their prime minister promise that “we will forever live by the sword,” they understand that their contract with the state has been breached.
It’s not only a matter of difficulties and failures, such as the cost of living, the housing crisis or the collapse of the healthcare system. Those issues can be overcome if there is a shared ethos and basic solidarity. But violating the trust between citizens and their country cannot be overcome. It creates alienation, followed by detachment.
That’s why it’s hard to complain about the 700,000 Israelis who live in the United States, and we shouldn’t be surprised when the number goes over a million. When our children in Israel enter Gaza as soldiers on the 17th such mission, their children will be completing their bachelor’s degrees.
Until then, the new elite, that alliance between the eternal victims from the ethno-nationalist right and anti-humanist ultra-Orthodoxy, will celebrate. Until then, they will actually justify their path by turning Israel into a pariah country, since criticism of Israel is always anti-Semitic, and anti-Semitism proves that we are a Chosen People. The last thing they want is for Israel to be a normal country. Alas, normal people want to live in a normal country.
Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute